Epstein gets many facts about surveillance issues wrong, calling into question his competence to serve as a guide to thinking seriously about the Snowden saga. He gets dates wrong, calls an important technology by the wrong name, and inaccurately describes various programs and a presidential directive Snowden leaked. His botched discussion of the Prism system, which Snowden disclosed, is a troubling example. The government uses Prism to collect from American webmail providers like Gmail, without a warrant, the e-mails of noncitizens abroad whose accounts have been targeted by intelligence officials for surveillance. When Americans communicate with those targets, the government also “incidentally” gathers those Americans’ e-mails to and from the target without a warrant. Epstein reassures his readers three times that every few months, the NSA sifts through all the e-mails it has gathered via Prism in order to filter out and purge “whatever information was accidentally picked up about Americans.” That is a fake fact.
In reality, the NSA does not filter out Americans’ messages gathered via Prism. Indeed, it shares raw messages gathered via the Prism trove with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Counterterrorism Center. Once-secret rules permit officials at all those agencies to search that trove for intelligence purposes using the names of Americans and to read any private e-mails they find. FBI agents may also do so when investigating ordinary criminal suspects. When Congress in 2017 extends the law that authorizes Prism, reformers are hoping to close this so-called “backdoor search loophole” by requiring warrants to search for Americans’ e-mails within the Prism trove. Because this policy debate is attributable to Snowden’s leaks, Epstein’s misinformation about Prism is no small detail.